Or, “hot chocolate and biscuits”, if I’m being both more and less accurate, and true to my Britishness.
Having arrived back in Britain in the middle of the flippin’ winter, we’ve been drinking a lot of hot chocolate. Now, I’m quite fussy about my hot chocolate. So many cafes (especially those chain places) just fail straight off by serving tepid drinks that aren’t particularly chocolaty. Seriously, the description of the product is in the name: it needs to be hot, and it needs to be chocolaty.
It surprises me how long it’s taking for hot chocolate to be taken as seriously as coffee as a drink. Sure, it’s a hot milky drink, so is perhaps more of a winter drink – but having said that, most so-called coffees served by those chain places are basically just flavoured (warm, frothy) milks drinks too.
Surely hot chocolate deserves as serious attention as coffee? Single estate and all that.
I was discussing this with Michael Temple, proprietor of the Coffee House on Fisher Street in the historic heart of Lewes, East Sussex, and he agreed, mentioning that hot chocolate was popularised in Europe before coffee. Coffee spread from Asia and Africa into Europe, via the Arab world and trade through Venice, in the 16th century, with coffee houses starting to open in England in the second half of the 17th century. Chocolate – which was a bitter drink of the Aztecs – reached Spain with Cortes in 1528, and was soon developed into a sweet drink. The first chocolate house opened in England in 1657.
I’m not a coffee drinker – I’ve never enjoyed the taste of coffee – but strangely I do prefer my chocolate, and by extension, my hot chocolate, to be bitter with coffee-ish notes. (Talking of which, I’m on a side-quest to try chocolate with the highest percentage cacao; tried Mr Popple’s 88% Strong yesterday. It’s only sweetened with yacón syrup – no, I hadn’t heard of that before either – has a great, gritty crunchiness, and flavour that’s coffee-ish and sharp.)
Taking hot chocolate seriously
Michael takes his hot chocolate seriously enough to offer two types, which he calls “Italian” and “Spanish”. The former is made with (French) Valrhona and is 50% cacao. It’s very good, especially as he serves it suitably scalding. I’ve found another that pips it though, and it’s a local brand. This is Montezuma’s, a British chocolatier founded in 2000 and based just outside Chichester, West Sussex. Sure, the cacao’s not British-grown, but that doesn’t trouble my locavore inclinations too much. After all – this is chocolate we’re talking about. One’s personal ethics have to have some exceptions.
Montezuma’s do four hot chocolates at the moment, but I’m a purist so there’s only one for me: their Dark Chocolate, with 54% cacao. Years ago, I used to drink Green & Blacks, but by comparison that just seems too sweet and weak now (plus G&B sold out to Cadbury’s, who sold out to Kraft; meh). I also used to drink stuff based on an original Sir Hans Sloane recipe that they sold at the Natural History Museum, but that brand was discontinued. Then we discovered Mortimer Chocolate Company‘s 70% chocolate powder. These guys take their drinking chocolate satisfyingly seriously, talking about blend and provenance in a language not unlike that used for coffee.
In Italy, meanwhile, my favoured brand was first Venchi, then Fran found Leone, who did a 70% stoneground-coarse-granules hot chocolate. Montezuma’s comes in flakes and chunks, not granules, and is a thing of beauty, making a far superior drink to the other brand I bought recently – Clipper. Its powder form just seems oddly twee and lame in comparison to these chunky options.
Drinking lots of hot chocolate is one of the great pleasures of winter, and has helped us through the past three weeks or so of largely miserable grey, wet, windy weather. It’s an even more pleasing, and comforting, experience when accompanied by some nice biscuits. So we had a little baking session. Fran did some shortbread from a Dan Lepard recipe in Short and Sweet. The results are good, though they have a little more chew than crunch.
I wanted something with a bit more snap, so I tried the Pain d’amande / Almond wafer cookies recipe in the American Academy in Rome’s Biscotti book.
As with most of the book’s recipes, it involves fairly large quantities and a fairly unclear, insufficiently tested, poorly edited recipe. Mine weren’t perfect, but dipped in hot chocolate they were yummy. They’re made with Demerara sugar, giving them a warm caramelly taste. The recipe called for slithered raw almonds but I only had flaked almonds, so used them. I think the cookies would have been better with the almond skin, so I’ll try that slicing whole almonds next time.
So anyway, here’s a recipe.
110g unsalted butter
1/2 t ground cinnamon
150g Demerara sugar
70g whole almonds, sliced into slithers. Or flaked almonds if you CBA
150g plain/all-purpose flour
Pinch of baking soda
Pinch of salt
1. Warm the water, butter, cinnamon and sugar together in a pan. Melt, don’t boil!*
2. Pour the warmed mixture into a mixing bowl and stir in the nuts.
3. Sift together the flour and baking soda, and add, along with the salt, to the mixture.
4. Combine and form a dough.
5. Shape the dough into a rectangle. You want it to be wide and flattish, about 25mm deep.
6. Wrap up the rectangle in plastic and rest in the fridge for about half an hour.
7. Preheat the oven to 160C.
8. De-fridge, de-plastic and the dough.
9. The slice rectangle across (not along) into pieces about 3mm thick.
Eat dipped in the best quality hot chocolate you can find. And made with flavoursome full-fat milk.
Now if only Montezuma’s would produce a 70%-plus hot chocolate to their range I’d love them forever. (Or at least until they sell to an ethics-free corporation. Please don’t sell out Montezuma’s!)
(Oh, and if anyone has any WordPress wherewithal – why on earth would uploading just this one image have WordPress changing it from a landscape format 1747×983 image into a portrait format 976×1747 image?)
* I’ve been corresponding with Ilse Zambonini about these almond “wafers”, which she dubbed “dentist’s joy”. When you melt the sugar and butter, don’t bring it to the boil or you could make a caramel or even a very hard toffee! Also, when you slice, make sure they’re nice and thin, and when you bake, don’t over-bake. Follow these tips, and you’ll get a biscuit that’s crisp, but not too-breaking!